News and Comment

We Need to Talk About Infrastructure: Event Highlights

Monday 20 April 2015

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We Need to Talk About Infrastructure, a recent seminar hosted by Dialogue by Design (part of the OPM Group), and co-hosted with the UCL Transport Institute – posed a simple challenge: when Government plans to invest £375 billion in infrastructure projects up to 2020, how can this be done with local communities, rather than against them?

The four speakers at the event all, in their own way, offered their own perspectives on these questions. Dr Jack Stilgoe, an expert in technology dialogues at UCL, challenged the audience to learn the lessons from other fields. In the late 1990s, scientists and technologists were failing to explain their research and innovations to an increasingly sceptical public. Policymakers came to believe that more needed to be done to not just communicate with and persuade citizens of the merits of certain advances (such as GM foods) – they needed to understand the public’s perspectives at the earliest stage possible. A model of infrastructure decision-making that attempts to understand the public’s reactions to it prior to recommendations about any particular scheme might therefore be more successful.

Professor Brian Collins, the former Chief Scientist for the Department for Transport and now attached to UCL, focused on the governance for infrastructure decision-making: we have a system of shared infrastructure where decision-making is fragmented and isolated. It is therefore sometimes unclear just who the public should be engaging with; the dependencies between different infrastructures are even murkier to citizens – a new road may be required by a decision to build a railway; but there may be no real opportunities for those affected by the former to adequately contest or challenge the latter.

Professor Collins also stressed that there was an absence of obligation in the conversation we have about infrastructure: citizens talk of their rights – for example, their right to quiet enjoyment of their communities, free from big developments – without a symmetric discussion of their obligations. In the context of shared infrastructure, is a conversation about citizens’ obligations to accommodate infrastructure necessary?

Will Bridges, Consents Officer for National Grid, highlighted the importance of close community engagement for the North West Coasts Connection Project: probably the most far-reaching plans to connect a power station to the Grid since its creation in the 1960s. For Will, the hard, technical knowledge provided by environmental and engineering assessments could only accomplish so much. The local knowledge that only communities, local interest groups and councils could offer was irreplaceable. He concluded that National Grid’s plans would have been nowhere near as successful without these crucial local understandings and perspectives.

Diane Beddoes, Chief Executive at Dialogue by Design, spoke to the practicalities of improving engagement, in the context of a collapse in public trust – where only 15% of the public have faith in the developers’ honesty, collapsing to 6% for government ministers and politicians. She suggested three possible innovations: firstly, the public rate technical experts far more highly, so the more in depth opportunities they have to discuss issues, the more successful engagement activities will be. Secondly, she identified ways in which digital technology could be used to go beyond simply replacing paper with websites, and instead create new tools – for example, by creating modelling tools that allow individuals to map the consequences of developers’ electing for one choice over another. Finally, Diane stressed the need of getting the design of engagement right: if questions aren’t clear, if processes are ill-suited, then not only will developers not get the information they need, but citizens will challenge the engagement process itself.

A single post can only ever offer the headlines from an event such as this: the perspectives of these speakers and the rich, informed views of participants challenged us and made us reflect upon our own practices. In the months ahead, we’ll return to particular issues raised in blog posts and a detailed report that draws out the lessons and recommendations that follow from reflecting on the event.